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Computer Power: On the Road & At Work

It is not surprising that Steve Ward is bullish about the benefits of microprocessors for products and processes—after all, he is IBM's Global Industrial Sector's general manager. But what may be surprising is the extent to which this technology can be leveraged right now.

Talk
In order to explain the actual power of voice recognition technology—the type of thing that some auto makers are using with so-so results (I was once in a test vehicle that was meant to show just how well the technology would work and the person doing the demonstration got to the point that it seemed as though the vehicle system had been taken over by HAL from 2001, as it repeatedly stated that it didn't recognize the command..."Sorry, Dave...")—Steve M. Ward, general manager, Global Industrial Sector, IBM(White Plains, NY), hands me his cell phone. By saying his name and then the location of his office, I ended up talking to his secretary (who has undoubtedly listened to more than her share of people trying to explain to her that her boss was doing a demonstration). Ward explained to me that because I was dealing with a cell phone and not a PC, the accuracy of the system was about 85%. He went on to explain that IBM has servers in production that deal with natural language such that you could have a conversation like the following:

You: What is IBM's stock price and DaimlerChrysler's?
It: [the appropriate numbers]
You: Buy 100 shares.
It: Which one?

Ward said that right now there is the ability to handle 20 lines with a big UNIX server. "But that will change."

Answers
What he foresees—and he's not looking in the distant future (i.e., he estimates that by the end of the decade there will be computers "with the same raw computational power as a human brain—but they will not have cognitive capabilities," and points out that now the relative computational power is about equal to that of a lizard)—is that there would be the ability to have a system in a car that would allow him, when driving on a trip with his sons, to ask, "Where is a gas station with bathrooms next to a Taco Bell?" and to have it downloaded to a GPS system. The question would be phrased as naturally as that, not some sort of Borg-speak. The answer and the directions that result would come from a computer-based system, not from a roomful of people wearing headsets who are all scanning Mapquest.

IBM has a technology called "In-Vehicle Information System" (IVIS). This is part of a bigger whole, which is called "Pervasive Computing." There are three elements that make this possible: embedded microprocessors, Java-based network computing, and wireless communications technologies.

Rolling
The key difference between what IBM is proposing and what is increasingly the norm in some top-end vehicles with "telematics" offerings and options is that whereas the current tendency is to install equipment in the vehicle (e.g., CD-ROM drives) to make this possible, IVIS utilizes off-board computing and applications, thereby not only making installation simpler from an assembly standpoint, but also allows the system to remain up to date (as the primary modifications would be done at the server, not on the vehicle). Once there are embedded processors in a vehicle, it would be possible to provide IVIS on all levels of cars, not just those at the upper end.

Steve Ward
Steve Ward, general manager, IBM's Global Industrial Sector: "How do we understand the powers of the Web and rethink all of our processes?" The answer to that question, he suggests, is one that all companies need to grapple with—just to stay in place.

(Features and functions could be activated in the top-end vehicles that aren't made available in the lowerend units; this would be a software engagement, not the need to have more sophisticated hardware in one vehicle than another to achieve differing levels of functionality.)

According to Ward, the elements of IVIS are available now; this is not some science fiction dream. The issue is, perhaps, one of thinking about taking a different approach to providing telematics capabilities without having all sorts of additional wiring and equipment installed inthe vehicle or having NASA-like control rooms full of head set wearing people answering the natural language queries.

(Ward lists a number of potential side benefits to this approach. For example, the speech-based approach means that no one needs to fumble with buttons or dials, which can be safer. He points out that there would be all sorts of additionalfunctionality: "What would make me buy a brand new car for my son?" he asks, rhetorically (as he insists that he has no plans to do so: so son, if you are reading this, sorry). "If that car had a service that would plot on a website where he went and how fast he went." (I suggested that his son would undoubtedly hack into that system and indicate that he drove 25 mph to grandma's house.) He believes that if the information that the system could collect about the vehicle's operating performance was downloaded to the auto- maker, the automaker might be inclined to provide a lower lease rate in return for that information.)

Connected
But Ward's interest in computing and communications goes well beyond enhancing the driving experience. Prior to taking on his present job, Ward was the chief information officer and vice president-Business Transformation for IBM; he was responsible for IBM's e-business practices. IBM's e-business is rather significant: "Last year we sold $15-billion over the Internet. We do over 60% of our customer service purely electronically." Up to the beginning of August 2000, IBM had done some 40 million self-service transactions and about 15 million that involved people (i.e., handling phone calls or faxes). "Those customers that do self-service transactions are the ones who are most satisfied."

IBM does about half of its purchases of nonproduction items over the Internet; last year it web-enabled about 13,000 suppliers.

Speed
A key thing that the Web facilitates is faster product development. "You get the best minds on a project when you have suppliers working collaboratively designing products with you," Ward notes. But heretofore it has been time consuming. "I'm a mechanical engineer," Ward says. "When I worked for Paccar Motors, one of the things I'd do when designing truck cabs was to be on the phone with suppliers. I'd talk to one, and they'd ship me swatches of leather. Then I'd talk to another supplier about a seat design, and they'd send me a fax. It would take me days to do what I should have been able to do before lunchtime." By having connected suppliers, this is possible. "Now companies can take CATIA-designed parts"—with CATIA being the CAD/CAE/CAM/CAx system that IBM provides in the U.S.—"and the person receiving it doesn't need CATIA to collaborate on the design. Add to that instant messaging—not just on dedicated networks built inside one'sown company with heavy clients, but over the Web." The result is work being done a whole lot faster and more efficiently.

"For employees, what's important is to move from individual knowledge to shared knowledge," says Ward. He suggests that by including access to internal and external databases, by having people with specific areas of expertise notated in databases, someone with a problem can log onto the system and find out not only what has been done with regard to a particular problem or issue, but who has the expertise to help with the issue.

"It's all about using technology to help everyone in the company to solve problems and to share victories," Ward says.